With a veteran coach and strong leaders, the Impact are thriving
KANSAS CITY -- The annoyances began just before halftime. The Montreal Impact were seconds away from heading into the visiting locker room tied 0-0 with Sporting Kansas City, 45 minutes away from a crucial road point two days after winning the Canadian Voyageurs Cup -- their first major piece of silverware since joining MLS.
It was at that point when Impact defender Alessandro Nesta tugged the shirt of Kansas City striker Claudio Bieler, just outside of the box. A foul was called, inside the box, an unjust penalty from the perspective of the Impact.
Bieler dispatched the resulting spot kick, sending the 19,470 announced at Sporting Park into a frenzy and turning the Montreal locker room into a canister of anger over the interval.
"That foul... I'm pretty confident it wasn't in the box," midfielder Patrice Bernier told SI.com after the match -- a sentiment multiple other players echoed.
"I said 'We have to calm down,'" recalled Bernier. "The only answer if we're frustrated with the other team -- or the referees -- is to go out there and win.'"
That Montreal recovered to do, rocketing to the top spot in the Eastern Conference in the process. It proved what the club's coaches and players consistently spout. The secret to the Canadian side's head-turning start lies not in the palpable talents of world stars Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta, but in the team's mentality.
In Kansas City, one of the principal architects of that mentality wouldn't even be present to see it kick into overdrive. Head coach Marco Schällibaum had been ejected from the game at halftime, reportedly after complaining to referees about the penalty call as he walked toward the tunnel. It was the second straight time the coach had been ejected from a game at Sporting Park -- the first, in March, was for throwing water in the general direction of the fourth official.
An ejection is among the last things one might expect after speaking with Schällibaum in the lobby of the team's hotel in Kansas City 24 hours before the Impact's win. The Swiss carries an aloof, easy-going air, explaining in a soft voice his coaching philosophy, honed over 16 years in Swiss soccer and a two-year stint as a FIFA coaching instructor in Qatar, Mongolia, and South Korea. Coaches with similarly diverse pedigrees have come to MLS before, and many have failed. Schällibaum knows this.
"When you come here, you must adapt to a lot of things, but the important thing is to come here and not think that you're the hero," he says. "You can learn until the last day of your life, and I think this team knows that, too. They want to learn, they want to get better every day, and for a coach that's very important."
When Impact Sporting Director Nick De Santis contacted Schällibaum about the vacant head coaching position in Montreal, Schällibaum says he instantly sensed a connection between himself, De Santis, and Impact owner Joey Saputo. Each man valued discipline and mental balance. Each wanted a hard working team -- one that would represent the underdog ideals and cosmopolitan nature of its city and province.
Schällibaum watched a few Impact games on video, and enthusiastically accepted the position.
"The good feeling I had in the first moment, it still hasn't gone away," he says. "You can give instructions to players, and you want it to be like a boomerang. But with some you can speak for one, two, three hours but you'll never get something back. But with this team, they learn very quickly from me, and they also improve among themselves."
That, Schällibaum says, is due to the strong veteran leadership provided not just by Di Vaio, Nesta, and defender Matteo Ferrari, but also Bernier. The 33-year-old Montreal native started his career with the Impact 13 years ago before leaving to play in Norway, Germany, and Denmark. He then returned to his hometown team upon their entry into MLS last year.
Since then, Bernier has become the heart and soul of the team. With passes that can penetrate or keep a rhythm, the pulse of each Impact game comes from the feet of Bernier. Even on a team with the experience of Nesta and Di Vaio, it's Bernier that wears the captain's armband in Kansas City.
"You can talk about a winning mentality, but until you win, you don't know what it is," Bernier says. "And look, Nesta's won everything. But he's not here on vacation. Marco Di Vaio is the same. I can tell when someone isn't committed. You can see when somebody's there, they just play, not say anything, if they lose, not mention anything. But Nesta is there, he's leading from the back, allows me to lead from the middle, and Di Vaio from the front."
"That's not just good for those guys, but the players around them as well. Right now, everybody's finding their niche, and that's what you need: perfect balance."
Appropriately, it was niche players that came through in a flurry just after halftime in Montreal's win in Kansas City. The Impact's first goal came from winger Sanna Nyassi, whose appearances this year have mostly come as a substitute. The winner came from an even more unlikely source. Midfielder Collen Warner wasn't expected to make an offensive impact from his defensive midfield position alongside Bernier, but his first goal as a professional gave Montreal a 2-1 lead in one of the league's toughest environments.
The environment would get tougher, too. As competently as Montreal channeled their emotions in the opening 10 minutes of the first half, it would be the experienced Nesta that lost control of his again. Bieler was, once again, the source of his annoyance. Lying on the ground after a challenge from Bieler, Nesta saw the Argentine whip his foot in front of his face, his studs landing on his hand. That was, apparently, the last straw. Nesta exploded, charging at Bieler, delivering a head-butt that resulted in an ejection, putting Montreal down a man for the remainder of a match.
If the red card fazed Montreal, they didn't show it. If anything, it seemed to intensify a team-wide effort to secure the win in the face of relentless pressure. Hassoun Camara headed a clearance. Andres Romero took away a poor touch, Warner blocked a shot. Ferrari blocked a header. Even the striker Di Vaio went on the defensive, heading out a corner kick under duress. Through it all, goalkeeper Troy Perkins made solid saves.
"Last year, this never, ever, ever would have been a win," Bernier said post-match. "This team is resilient. We were very emotional, and they were coming at us. But we blocked them all. Now we can go home and celebrate a bit and know that we're doing well and we're in the position we want to be."
His coach sees things a little differently.
"There are no presents in life, except on a birthday or at Christmastime when you're a kid." he says, before adding. "[Presents] are not for me now."
No presents at all?
"No," he responds flatly. "Maybe give me some flowers when we are in the playoffs. But I don't want those flowers today. The playoffs are a long ways away. You have to keep working hard."